A Case For Philosophical Moonlighting

Light has often been used a metaphor for truth, knowledge and enlightenment. To take it to extreme, we can envision our sun as a representation of “the” Truth, the ultimate conceptualization of reality as we know it.

As humans with a limited perspective on the world around us we continue to search for scraps and clues about the sort of existence we are living. Developing or adopting a philosophy brings with it a road-map to help us make our way at night. When the light of truth isn’t apparent, then our philosophy is like the moon, reflecting the truth to us in the darkness.

Leveraging the wisdom of others we are able to see a path forward as well as some of the obstacles in the way. Philosophy, like the moon, comes to us from a fixed perspective. In order to utilize the knowledge and experience that are contained within, it must necessarily be grounded within a context and history. From this context we can extrapolate about our own lives, but will always come up against areas that our philosophy cannot illuminate.

If we could move the light around at will, we would be able to eventually see all that there is to see, but that just isn’t the way it works. True, with time, the experience of our lives acts as the turning of the earth, and our relationship with our chosen philosophy will naturally change. Over the course of our time in this world we will experience times when our philosophy is bright and clear, and times when it is obscured by clouds. Times when it is waxing and on the ascendance and times when it is waning and about to abandon us to the dark.

Unlike the moon we are not tied to the reflective properties of only one philosophy. We are free to sample from the broad range of human experience and perspective. A key point to keep in mind about life philosophy is that it is meant to be a lived an experienced tradition. The writing and thinking itself cannot provide the same perspective as will come when one takes the time to explore and experience some of the practices in daily life.

Much Western thinking has a problem with identity politics and the need to belong to a specified label in order to fit in. Many people may find it uncomfortable to read works from the thinkers who have come out of other traditions and to adopt practices that don’t easily fit in with how they see their current philosophical or religious identity. Ideas do not come with true labels, however, and the beauty of our situation now, with many people sheltering in place and maintaining their social distance, is that it is a perfect time to indulge in explorations that may not fit comfortably in with what others think of you. Just like the taking on of an extra job outside of your listed career, I encourage anyone to use this time for some philosophical moonlighting.

I, for one, have been thinking quite a lot about my own two poles of philosophy: stoicism and Taoism, chosen because of their strong resonances but also as a conscious split of the “West” and “East”. This, of course, if a false dichotomy. I am very interested in exploring philosophical traditions that have arisen in other cultures which do not have the developed social awareness here in the West, especially African thought. I will hopefully have some more experiences and resources to share as I dig in and see what new perspectives I can find.

Humans will continue to keep asking questions in order to understand the sort of life we are living. The questioning may be very different, but the answer will be the same for everyone. No matter how many moons you have hanging in your sky, then will all be reflecting the same light, and illuminating your path, and showing just a bit more of the landscape we are all wandering within.

I hope that you and yours are well and safe. If you are interested in learning some more about Stoicism or Taoism I can recommend a couple of good introductions for each. If you have a good introductory book for any other school of thought I would love to hear about it and add it to my list, and my collection of moons for this strange dim time.

Taoism Resources:

  • “Tao The Watercourse Way” by Alan Watts, Book.
  • “The Tao of Pooh” by Benjamin Hoff, Book.
  • What’s This Tao All About“, Podcast.

Stoicism Resources:

Shared Vision: The work of Keld Helmer-Petersen

Making connections between disparate things, be they ideas or objects, has always had a special kind of fascination for me. Unlike comparing apples to apples, I think it can be much more enlightening seeing apples and oranges together.

In a previous post about the work of photographer Brett Wilson a generous reader clued me in to the work of another photography I had not yet encountered, a Dane named Keld Helmer-Petersen.

Keld took up a camera in the late 1930s and never put it down. He seemed to enjoy experimenting with a broad range of subject matter and technique. It seems from what I have yet explored of his images that his approach to photography was about a project much larger than the final result of any given image. He wasn’t trying to create a certain photograph at the end of the day, he was using photography itself as means to explore the world around him in all of its various forms.

His collected photographs are hosted online through the Royal Danish Library. In this time of social distancing and limited ability to get outside and make images of my own, I have found Keld’s images resonate quite deeply with the way I see the world.

There seems to be no organization to the online database of his photos, which highlights to me the eclectic and wide-ranging set of interests that grabbed Keld’s attention. The things that seemed to catch his attention weren’t the subjects of the scene so much as the relationships between various elements. He captured odd angles of buildings, light and angles, shadows of things as opposed to the things themselves, as well as a whole lot of experimentation with light and image made photographically without cameras.

The way he composes scenes showcases a way of seeing that calls to attention gestalt qualities occurring accidentally, unintentional forms arising out of unique arrangements of buildings and industrial forms.

For me, going through the back log of his work has been a surreal and striking experience. Like the interactions between abstract forms in his photographs, I find myself resonating and relating to his work quite strongly. The description that came to mind was described in a paper by Einstein in which he described “spooky action at a distance”, two particles sharing properties and influencing each other without any direct connection, often separated by vast amounts of space.

This is someone who shares a way of seeing that I can relate to. I can imagine myself taking the pictures that he has taken, and I can see what I think he was trying to capture in those same images.

The experience of making these sorts of connections is more than simply camaraderie, more than a knowing wink and a nod. To share this way of seeing with another artist is like being inside of them. It is an experience of deep sympathy and resonance. We are all ultimately looking to know that there are other people in the world who can relate to us in a meaningful way, and I am beginning to see the broad swath of art as the only real means of finding these visceral connections.

In this time while most of us are spending time sheltering in place and keeping our distance from one another. How vital to continue sharing work that can build these connections over great distance and even gulfs of time, so that we can find others that see how we see and let us know that we are never alone.

If nothing else I am about 2000 images into his collection, and there are more than 18,000 hosted to go through, which should keep me busy.


Keld Helmer-Peterson on Wikipedia

Collection of photographs hosted by the Royal Danish Library. This resource has an incredible amount of collected media beyond images including writing and visual arts. Though much of the site is in Danish, this is still a wonderful place to explore while sheltering in place.

Photo Story: Colorful Bokeh Bits

Inspired by my last session stuck downstairs in the playroom with my camera, I approached the next one with a much more open perspective.

The actual objects in our playroom don’t interest me very much as subject matter for photos. Much the same with my photography outdoors I am more interested in the overlapping of textures and patterns, and the small details that get overlooked. When surrounded by man-made objects, which do not generally have their own inherent natural qualities or details, I was struggling to figure out where to point my camera.

The answer to this question, as the answer to so many questions of my childhood, was legos. I liked the idea of restricting my viewpoint, and using objects to disrupt the objects in the room so that they wouldn’t be recognizable in the photos. This way, it wouldn’t matter so much what I was shooting, rather how I was shooting.

I created a simple viewfinder/tunnel out of lego (duplo to get technical) windows so that I could focus the light and attention of the camera.

That, combined with the multi-colored strings of lights that we have set up down there were enough to create some really interesting abstractions using a close focus and bokeh from the lights.

The lego frames were semi-reflective, and by adjusting how they lined up I was able to create slices of the round light glow, and to multiply the effect in some interesting ways. One of the most interesting things I learned is that my mirrorless fujifilm x-e1 isn’t always going to create what I see on the viewfinder. Several of the lights that I saw clearly on my screen did not show up after I had clicked the shutter. Something to do with the angle or intensity of the light.

Once again the power of play wins out. I guess I will continue taking this lesson to heart, especially given that we are potentially going to have to spend some serious time social distancing in the near future depending on how things go.

For now, I hope that everyone is able to take a step back, take stock, and find some unique perspectives to help brighten up the day even when things don’t initially looks so positive.

Photo Story: Folds of Gold

After several absolutely amazing days where we were treated to a preview of summer the dream has been snatched away. Freezing drizzle, along with having the kids off school on spring break, has created the perfect environment for cabin fever. Oh yeah, at at least two of the family are sick right now, so we’re also trying to keep people separated as well as sane.

All of this has been driving me a bit crazy as well since I haven’t been able to get outside and shoot anything besides family pics.

Yesterday, feeling trapped in our basement play room with the pent up energy of a three and six year old, I managed to find a quiet pocket of photographic experimentation to escape into.

We have had a shiny gold set of bed sheets for several years now. I can’t quite remember where they came from, but their current home is in the play room where they are regularly used for building forts and tunnels.

Inspired by the way the cloth was draping and catching the light I decided to do my first staged photo shoot. Using various props to hang the fabric from I tried to create interesting patterns of folds, loosely tugging and piling the fabric so that it would fall somewhat haphazardly, creating a look based on the nature of the material and not something that I had carefully arranged. Thankfully this was a very simple process and lent itself to simple reconfiguration and quick adjustments.

If nothing else it was a great experiment in composition and balance of positive and negative spaces. Limiting the scope to simple color and shape really allows one to see how they interact within the frame.

I can also see how creating abstract photographs of other materials would make for an interesting project. The ways in which other items like paper would create texture through crumples or overlaps could be similarly interesting. Never though I would ever consider shooting indoors, especially not arranged shots in a controlled environment, and I likely won’t spend much time going down this road, but it goes to show that allowing oneself to play with even the strangest ideas could open doors to new perspectives.

Photo Story: Light Activated

After picking my kids up from school yesterday (and choosing not to bring a camera along as I have started to do) of course I saw several shots just waiting to happen.

Thankfully one of these shots was just up the street. After dropping off the oldest child who doesn’t mind spending a little time to herself at home, I grabbed by camera and dashed back to see what I could capture of light coming through these leaves in front of our neighbor’s house.

Looking at the normally drab brown leaves as the sunlight streamed in from behind opened up an amazing range of colors. The dense leaves were simultaneously vibrant orange and green, and layered nicely to form interesting patterns.

This one opportunity wasn’t the real find of the day, however. Sparked by the miniature photo-shoot and eager to spend some more time outside while the weather was reasonably tolerable we decided to hang out in the backyard for a while.

Though it hasn’t been unbearably cold, the winter takes a while to finally leave our yard, especially in the back of the house where we get plenty of shade along one side. Spring thaw has meant a soggy mess back there for a few weeks now on and off, and yesterday it was finally nice enough to walk around and see what the end of winter had left us.

Peeking over our back fence I discovered dried out leaves and flowers that have been slowly invading from our neighbor’s yard year after year. There was just enough light coming in over the fence to highlight the last portions of this vine as I explored how it too came alive in the light.

Like miniature paper lanterns the flowers created sparks and flares that I never would have seen if I hadn’t been in the mood to look closer. In this way one moment of inspiration will often spark the next, and as long as we are willing to go along for the ride, beautiful things will come our way.

Photo Story: Fire in the Cold

I was very disappointed to see temperatures well below freezing in the forecast for my work trip this week. It is when I am on the road and away from home that I have time to spend running outdoors and looking for photographs to capture. While I understand that February in Minnesota is often the coldest month of the year, I still had some hopes built up that this week would give me something a little more hospitable.

Not wanting to spend a long time out in a forest freezing my toes off, I decided to take a few layers and do a quick lap up and down the river.

The two interesting images I came back certainly couldn’t be more different. Above, a detail shot of drifted snow, collected at the side of the path over multiple snow falls and shaped by the winds. Looking at this definitely gives me a strong reminder of the fractal nature of detail in our world. Whether looking through a microscope or looking at the Milky Way, there is so much complexity to be seen at every level. Is this an image of a far away mountain range, or simply a snow bank. Does it really matter?

In comparison to this I noticed a few bushes still clinging to their dried golden leaves. Setting up where I could frame the branches the leaves were able to collect the strong winter light and burst into vibrant orange flames. These struck me with the intensity once I was able to look at them on the screen. Squinting into my viewfinder I was having a hard time not going a bit snow-blind.

Photo Story: Rivers in the Gravel

In my last post I used an image that I found literally laying at my feet, in a place I never would have thought to look.

I had only recently begun exploring photogrophy as a more serious project at the time I took this picture. All I have been using up until recently was the (arguably quite decent) camera on my smartphone, playing with shutter speed and ISO to learn as much as I could about proper exposure and technique.

What was probably more annoying for my family during that time (probably still) is that I was constantly fiddling with my phone and taking pictures everywhere that we went. The upside of this is that I have continued to be even more eager to get outside with the family, dragging everyone to the local parks and woods as much as possible, even though it was middle of winter at the time.

My family is game, however, but not without their own opinions, as is perfectly within their rights. Picking locations that my children will enjoy is usually pretty easy because they are also into exploring nature, the more dirt and mud the better. On this occasion, however, they really wanted to head to the playground very near our house, attached to an elementary school. This playground has some nice equipment and lots of space to run, but everything is either covered in pavement or pea gravel. Not what I expected to be a photogenic location.

Despite this I still spent as much time as possible trying to find interesting shots, even if it was just practicing focus adjustments and composition.

As the play time extended over the one-hour mark and the weather continued to be unseasonably pleasant I felt as if I had exhausted all of my potential photography targets. As I was debating whether or not I needed to convince everyone that we were going home, the golden hour of sunset started, adding some extra contrast to the scene.

There, at my feet, was an interesting sight. Long pine needles, grouped together, lined up in wavy formations, snaking around the gravel. Here was nature at work, using rain water to collect needles and deposit them artistically around the playground to highlight where water pooled and drained. It was an amazing example of the fact that we cannot avoid the influence of natural cycles, even in environments that have been constructed specifically to eliminate needed maintenance of plants and landscaping. In some ways, seeing these flowing needles out of a more natural context highlighted the forces at play. This was a wonderful subversive wu wei at work, effortlessly showing us that no matter what we do nature will not be sidelined or ignored.

I got a few pictures in the angled light, but wasn’t able to capture the energy of these needles. Just having seen it, however, I felt even more sure about my time spent with a camera. Training myself to look helped me to notice something I never would have seen before, which added so much value to my visit to the playground that day. For me it was a friendly gesture, letting me know that no matter where I looked I couldn’t truly be separate, and that if I keep myself open, I will be able to connect myself with something larger, even in the most unlikely of spaces.